By all accounts, Indian athletics has provided one of its best-ever medal hauls in the Asian Games. Nineteen medals in all including seven gold for a six-day effort that has come up to the expectations of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) but has rattled rivals as well as experts and commentators.
The jubilation in athletics circles is understandable. The Indian tally is far better in terms of gold medals than what was achieved in the Incheon Games four years ago, seven gold as against two, and the total, at 19, is also the highest in all Asiads except the inaugural one in 1951 when India took 31 medals in track and field including 10 gold.
As in the past, China topped the athletics table, with 12 gold, 12 silver and nine bronze. Bahrain, with its ‘imports’ came second with 12-6-7. Third was India, up from their sixth position in 2014.
“The best ever performance” is an over-used expression in the context of Indian sports. The Jakarta gold medal tally matched that of the Busan Games athletics for India at seven but the silver count at 10 was much higher than the six gained in the South Korean city. Most seemed to have forgotten that in the 1978 Bangkok Games, Indian athletes had claimed eight gold medals in a total of 18 medals. The best was 10-10-11 at home in the inaugural year in 1951.
“We were about 20-odd athletes,” recalled former National coach, J. S. Saini about the 1978 experience. “I had just Vidyasagar (coach) as an official with me, no managers, no physios, no masseurs and no doctors”.
The past is being recalled here not in an attempt to belittle the efforts of the Indian medal winners - all commendable performances - but to put things in perspective. It is easy to go overboard and boast that the time has come to make the breakthrough at the global level or to start seeing medals in the next Olympics in Tokyo. That is still a huge mountain to climb, except for someone like javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra.
Among the most surprising gold-medal feats for India in Jakarta were the 800m win by Manjit Singh and the triple jump one by Arpinder Singh.
If anyone was fancied to win the 800m and the 1500m, it was Jinson Johnson, the tall Kerala athlete who had set national records in both the events this season, 1:45.65 at Guwahati and 3:37.86 at Gold Coast. The middle and long-distance runners had an extended training stint at the high altitude of Thimphu, Bhutan. Manjit had joined them in the second phase after the Commonwealth Games for which he was considered for the 800m but eventually left out.
Manjit outkicked Johnson and Qatari Abubaker Abdallah on the home straight to clock a personal best 1:46.15 and took the 800m gold while Johnson, who finished with the silver, had his revenge in the 1500m on the final day, winning in a modest 3:44.72. Manjit came in fourth.
Middle distances are unpredictable. There is a general lack of class in Asia in the 800m and 1500m even with the Gulf nations bringing in Kenyans and Moroccans. One such Moroccan-origin runner, Sadik Mikhou, representing Bahrain, did not finish his 800m heat, and also gave up in the 1500m. A sixth-place finisher in the metric mile in last year’s World Championships, Mikhou has a PB of 3:31.34 in that event and happened to be the best-rated runner in the Asian Games field.
Arpinder Singh was always a contender for a medal in triple jump, but one couldn’t have termed him as the favourite in the company of two Chinese who had better credentials. Zhu Yaming at 17.11 was the second best Asian this year while defending champion Cao Shuo, fourth at Rio Olympics, was expected to provide tough competition to the Indian. China did not field Dong Bin, bronze medallist at Rio Olympics, who led the year’s standings with 17.22m.
As it turned out, Zhu Yaming managed just one legal jump (16.11m) in four attempts while Cao Shuo took the bronze at 16.56m. Arpinder had a third-round jump of 16.77m, his fourth best career jump.
The most predictable win for India came from its star javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra. The 20-year-old Indian has been in terrific form this season and he capped it with a PB and National record of 88.06. This was the first time he had crossed 88m, having posted a national record of 87.43m in the Doha Diamond League early this season. Seven of his top-10 marks have come this season and he looks poised to break through the 90-metre barrier. Liu Qizhen of China (82.22m) was the most unlikely silver medallist, while Pakistani Arshad Nadeem had a national record (80.75m) for an unexpected bronze. Two of the challengers of Chopra, Chinese Taipei’s Cheng Chao-Tsun, the only Asian to have crossed 90.0m, and Qatari Ahmed Bader Magour finished poorly at fifth and sixth with 79.81m and 78.23m.
Though his success was a foregone conclusion, looking at the quality of the field and the sub-standard marks achieved by prominent rivals this season, one had not expected Tejinder Pal Singh Toor to reach a phenomenal distance of 20.75, a national record, in winning the shot put gold. This was only his fourth throw past 20 metres in a career that hit the headlines when he nailed 20.40m at the Fed Cup at Patiala in 2017 prior to the Asian championships where he finished second with 19.77m.
The Indian men bucked the trend of female athletes contributing most to the team’s golden tally for the past several editions, at least since P. T. Usha strode on the Seoul stage like a colossus in 1986 and won four gold medals out of five the country had in the Games. The men won five of the seven gold medals this time, with the two from women being snatched by heptathlete Swapna Barman with a national record and the women’s 4x400m relay team, with an impressive time of 3:28.72.
Barman, by her own admission was coping with a lower back ache for a few years that continued to trouble her at Jakarta, too, plus a toothache and a few other aches. Yet, she produced an awesome personal best of 6026 points to keep at bay Chinese (5954). Barman joined four other Indians, J. J. Shobha, Soma Biswas, Pramila Aiyappa and Susmita Singha Roy in the 6000-point club. Hampered by a hamstring strain, Purnima Hembram, who was tipped to win the gold, finished fourth with 5837 points.
Beaten by Bahrain in the 4x400m mixed relay, which made its debut, the Indian women pulled off some sort of surprise with a victory in the women’s 4x400m relay. The clincher was the absence of 400-metre hurdle winner Kemi Adekoya because of an injury suffered probably the previous day when she fell handing over the baton to the top quarter-miler of Asia, Salwa Eid Naser.
Adekoya having won the hurdles gold in an impressive 54.48s, the seventh fastest time in the world this year, she could have been expected to run the 400m flat in around 51.40s. With a running start in the relay, it would be cut further. In her absence, Bahrain had to field Iman Issa Jasim, a 54.10 runner this season. That made the difference between gold and silver for Bahrain as it did for India. The gap between first and second teams was 1.89s. It was too much for even someone like Naser to bridge. There was no denying the splendid collective effort of the Indian foursome of Hima Das who led off brilliantly despite an injury, M. R. Poovamma, Saritaben Gayakwad and V. K. Vismaya, but it would be foolish to think that the last-named got the better of Naser or that India was good enough to beat back anything that Bahrain could have thrown at them. By the time Naser got the baton on the anchor, her team was around 30 metres behind and though she cut the gap down by about 10 metres it was too hopeless,
In the men’s 4x400m, India was comprehensively beaten by Qatar, fielding its brilliant hurdler Abderrahmane Samba (world leader this season with 46.98s) and the 400m winner Abdalelah Haroun. They clocked an Asian record of 3:00.56 while Indian quarter of Kunhumohammed, Ayyasamy Dharun, Muhammed Anas and Arokia Rajiv timed 3:01.85 for the silver.
Hima Das produced yet another national record in the 400m, a stunning 50.79s. She has sliced nearly five seconds from her best for 400m in less than a year, from 55.57s in September, 2017 to 50.79s now. That is a staggering improvement that cannot be explained in simple athletics terms for an 18-year-old running her first year at the international level in the one-lap event.
To give the readers an idea about the awesome improvement that Das has made, let us take the example of American Sydney McLaughlin, the World Youth champion in 400m hurdles in 2015, and currently the leader in 400m and 400m hurdles in the under-20 season lists.
McLaughlin, 19, progressed in 400m from 53.78s (2014), 52.59 (2015), 51.87 (2016), 51.88 (2017) to the present 50.07s. That is an improvement of 3.71s in four years while Das has cut 4.78 seconds in less than 12 months! Many have asked the question: “Is that humanly possible?”. For the time being we will leave the debate at that.
The defeats for Das and Anas in the individual 400m were on expected lines. They were up against far superior rivals, though it could be argued by the fans that they were not beaten by ‘Asians’ but Africans. The debate started around 15years ago is likely to continue though the world over such transfers have happened and will continue to happen.
In many other events, where India took the silver, the ‘African’ angle was very much present. The women’s 3000m steeplechase in which Sudha Singh came second or the women’s 1500m where Chithra came third were such examples. The women’s discus had Seema Antil, defending her gold, come third to two Chinese who were in great form. Seema produced one of her best throws in recent memory, outside of California, but could not match Chen Yang (65.12) and Feng Bin (64.25).
Dutee Chand’s sprint double silver was a surprise. Two top-level contenders Chinese Wei Yongli (10.9s and 22.97 in 2018) and Viktoriya Zyabkina of Kazakhstan (11.20 and 22.73) had to endure disappointments as Bahrain’s Nigerian-origin sprinter Ofonime Odiong claimed the sprint double with Chand following.
The failures in Jakarta would be forgotten because of the tremendous success of the rest of the team. Yet, those failures have to be analysed and the AFI has to find a way to allow ‘non-campers’ into the relay teams if they perform as per the norms. It is up to the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) to test them.
Amidst the euphoria one should not forget that in 2010, shortly after an electrifying performance in the Commonwealth Games, India, with an extended training session for many athletes in Yalta, Ukraine, had claimed five gold medals in a great display in the Asian Games in Guangzhou. A year later, six of the woman quarter-milers were caught in doping to take the sheen off the Commonwealth and Asian Games success.
One can only hope that nothing of the past would be repeated this time though the main batch of athletes were in training camps abroad, in Poland, Czech Republic, Finland and Bhutan. The AFI believes that there is no doping going on in National camps. It cannot be sure about those outside camps. Nirmala Sheoran was one such athlete. She timed a PB 51.25 in the inter-State meet but could manage only 52.96s for fourth in Jakarta. She was not considered for the relay team, the AFI sticking to its policy of ‘non-campers’ being excluded. Not a sound policy but it worked this time.
KP Mohan has covered several international meets including the Olympics, Asian Games, World Championships and Asian Championships for The Hindu.